‘The Conspirator’ can’t conceal its many flaws

by Morgan Denno

Robin Wright and James McAvoy are bright spots in a film that is a suspenseful but also feels imperfect. Courtesy of The American Film Company
Robin Wright and James McAvoy are bright spots in a film that is a suspenseful but also feels imperfect. Courtesy of The American Film Company

It seems as if Hollywood has been going to extraordinary lengths to find truly interesting movie ideas. Today’s movie industry seems to be making carbon copies of the same movies with only a few minor tweaks or it will put out repetitive retellings in order to restore a sense of originality. Sometimes, it’s best to look back and discover the stories that may have been overlooked.

When most people recall the story of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, the name John Wilkes Booth comes to mind. Most people believe the story began when Lincoln was shot and was resolved when Booth was found and killed. However, one story that has not been told is what happened to Booth’s co-conspirators.

Mary Surratt (Robin Wright) and her daughter Anna Surratt (Evan Rachel Wood) ran a boarding house where her son, Booth and their friends held secret meetings during the Civil War. After the capture and killing of Booth, the conspirators were brought to trial, except for Mary’s son who had escaped. Rather than search for her son, the revenge-hungry government put Mary on trail for conspiring to kill the president. From here, an intricate story line follows Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy), a former Union war hero who returned from the battlefields to Washington, D.C. in time for the president’s murder. Rather than returning to civilian life, he’s unwillingly commissioned as Mary’s defending lawyer. The trials and connections that follow intricately weave the story together.

It’s best to think of “The Conspirator” as a well-made TV movie, or as a film that would result if The History Channel were to pair with AMC. Though Robert Redford directs the film, it’s a far stretch from “A River Runs Through It” or “The Horse Whisperer.” Though his filming techniques are beautiful and detailed, many scenes come off as a bit amateur, choppy and almost as if there should be commercial breaks.

It becomes hard to connect with any one character as the audience is jerked between chaotic and stable, almost boring, shots. The interweaving of Aiken’s personal life with girlfriend Sarah Weston (Alexis Bledel) and military friends such as Nicholas Baker (Justin Long), is contrasted with his time in a ruthless courtroom filled with Union government officials (such as Tom Wilkinson and Kevin Kline) seeking revenge against the Confederate Surratt. The audience remains in suspense throughout, wondering if Surratt will indeed be found innocent when everyone except for Aiken is rooting against her.

Despite a star-studded cast, the acting feels lackluster considering this set of extremely talented and seasoned actors. McAvoy’s incredible talent is mainly displayed in the courtroom, Long’s character is goofy with no depth, Kline acts stiffly and Bledel seems confused about how to play her character. However, McAvoy, Wright and Wood keep the story compelling and garner sympathy throughout the movie.

Overall, the plot itself is well done and the story line is amazing in its truth. McAvoy and Wright uphold gripping courtroom suspense until the very end and prove that history really does have some of the best stories.